Our Man in Mogadishu

January 08, 1991

It seems doubtful that President Mohammed Siad Barre, after 21 years of misrule, can withstand the final rebel assault that began Dec. 30 in Somalia. A decisive end to the fighting will be a blessing in the capital, Mogadishu, where one million souls face starvation and gunfire.

Long a pawn in the cold war, Somalia collected arms from the Soviet Union, the United States, Italy and Libya, which the army and the rebel United Somali Congress have been using to slaughter each other. The long competition of the Soviet Union and the United States in East Africa ended when the superpowers began to cooperate in third countries during the Bush administration. As a result, U.S. Marines went ashore over the weekend to rescue Soviet as well as American diplomats, for which Moscow was duly grateful.

In the Horn of Africa, as well as across the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian peninsula, the game of playing Moscow off against Washington for local factional advantage is over. Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre overthrew the pro-Western regime of the merged former Italian and British protectorates in 1969 and went to Moscow to join the Socialist camp. Moscow over-armed him in return for naval base rights, but sold him out in 1977 because the revolutionary regime in rival Ethiopia seemed a more rewarding client. President Siad Barre, who had invaded the Ogaden province of Ethiopia, withdrew and became a U.S. client.

This did not noticeably improve his atrocious dictatorship. Two years ago, U.S. aid evaporated and rebellion began. Even a last-ditch infusion of Libyan aid failed to save him. The rebellion is based largely on clan rivalries, without assurance that good will come from a new regime. The apparent departure of the octogenarian dictator at least offers hope to all eight million Somalis.

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